DORAL, Fla. -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper launched a review of U.S. Southern Command on Thursday as part of the Pentagon's worldwide look at where it can reallocate forces, raising the possibility that the already small Florida-based command could see additional cuts.
The worldwide review of all combatant commands was directed by Esper to find areas from which forces can either return to the United States to retrain and improve readiness or shift to the Asia-Pacific region or other commands to focus on longer-term threats posed by China and Russia.
"There's only a finite number of dollars, a finite number of troops, and so I've got to figure out, where is the best place to put them?" Esper said.
The potential for more cuts comes just as U.S. Southern Command is seeing a worrisome increase in Chinese and Russian investment, weapons sales and and influence in the command's area of responsibility, Southern Command officials said on the condition they not be identified. Southern Command covers 31 countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
In a briefing to reporters traveling with Esper to Southern Command, the officials provided several examples of how China and Russia have increased their ability to influence policy in South America.
For example, China has sold more than $615 million in weapons over the last 10 years to Venezuela, increasing its influence there.
For months, a Russian ship specialized in tracking and interfering with undersea cables has loitered off the coast of Uruguay and is currently en route to Antarctica, as "part of the highest (Russian) naval activity here in 15 years," another Southern Command official said.
The command has already seen seven previous cuts to its staffing levels, making it more difficult to keep pace with China and Russia's outreach, one official said.
"Ten years ago, if you came here, we had a Colombia division. A division of analysts working Colombia," another Southern Command official said. "Right now we have two analysts working Colombia."
"We are assuming risk in a number of areas in order to meet the present challenge," the official said.
Southern Command's overall annual budget is $1.2 billion, of which approximately one-third is spent on security cooperation programs such as joint exercises; one-third is spent on drug interdiction efforts, and one-third is spent on headquarters support funds, said Southern Command spokeswoman Army Col. Amanda Azubuike.
Esper said that the review does not necessarily mean Southern Command will see cuts.
"Everybody assumes when you do a review that it means a reduction, an elimination, but not necessarily," Esper told reporters traveling with him. "What I'm looking at first and foremost is how do I ensure our forces' posture around the globe to implement the (National Defense Strategy)?"
Esper did not give a timeline for completing the review, which comes as Southern Command is seeking more assets such as access to additional boats and surveillance drones to increase its ability to perform drug interdiction, the officials said.
U.S. Southern Command commander Navy Adm. Craig Faller said while the command is "short on intelligence and naval platforms," it focuses on partnering with Colombia, Panama and El Salvador, among other countries, on drug interdictions.
"We think it's as important as any more assets," Faller said at a news conference with Esper.
The Southern Command officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the command would also like to reverse cuts to its international military education training fund -- a program they say is critical to countering both Chinese and Russian influence among South America's rising military officers.
The program trained more than 1,200 rising South American officers through U.S. defense exchange programs in 2018, the officials said. Over the years, the continued training outreach has resulted in more than two-thirds of the current South American chiefs of defense being graduates of the program.
Program funds were cut from $10.4 million in 2018 to $8.8 million in the 2019 budget, the officials said.
The cuts to the U.S. international military outreach come as Russia and China have both increased their own outreach and influence, the officials said.
Nine of the 15 countries that recognize Taiwan are located in Central America and South America, "and particularly with Paraguay, they (China) are actively courting Paraguay, which still has a Taiwanese attache," another official said.
This article is written by By Tara Copp from Special to McClatchy Washington Bureau and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.